Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada one of those ‘meccas’ for military aviation and on a number of occasions each year and, if you are an aviator or an enthusiast, it is very much the place to be for Exercise Red Flag. Kevin Bell provides this report from Red Flag 17-1 between January 23 through February 10.

Now in its 40th year, Red Flag is a high-intensity exercise conceptualised not long after the end of the Vietnam War. It is designed to simulate the first 10 days of conflict which exposes all military aviators to the realistic challenges required for them to hone and sharpen their skill set for any future conflict. This is evident in the Red Flag motto – ‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’.

The exercise is developed and co-ordinated by the 414th Combat Training Squadron (CTS) and takes part over the Nellis Range Complex, located to the Northwest of Las Vegas. The range is approximately 60 miles by 100 miles allowing the exercise scenario to be played out on an extremely large scale.

The first event of 2017 (Red Flag 17-1) saw participants from the US Air Force, US Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force converge on Nellis for the three-week exercise which saw both a day and night sortie in each weekday 24-hour period. As the exercise evolved, the intensity of each mission gathered pace with new threats and challenges introduced to the fold. The units involved during Red Flag 17-1 included:

  • F-16CMs from the 77th FS based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina
  • F-16Cs from the 176th FS Wisconsin ANG based at Traux Field, Wisconsin
  • F-15Cs from the 159th FS Florida ANG based at Jacksonville, Florida
  • F-22As from the 27th FS based at Langley AFB, Virginia
  • F-35As from the 34th FS based at Hill AFB, Utah
  • B-1Bs from the 37th BS based at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota
  • EA-18Gs from VAQ-132 and VAQ-134 based at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington
  • An E-8C from the 128th ACCS based at Robins AFB, Georgia
  • An RC-135W from the 38th RS based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska
  • HH-60Gs from the 55th RQS based at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona
  • TyphoonFGR4s from 6 Sqn based at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland
  • A Sentinel R1 from 5 Sqn based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire
  • An RC-135W from 51 Sqn based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire
  • A Voyager from 10/101 Sqn based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire
  • A Hercules C4 from 47 Sqn based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire
  • An E-7A Wedgetail from 2 Sqn based at RAAF Williamtown, New South Wales
  • A C-130J-30 from 37 Sqn based at RAAF Richmond, New South Wales

History was made at Red Flag 17-1 with the first combat coded F-35A Squadron, the 34th Fighter Squadron – nicknamed the ‘Rude Rams’ – based at Hill AFB, Utah joining the fray with 14 of their 17 jets to participate in Red Flag 17-1. It is widely known following an announcement by the Head of U.S. Air Combat Command that a deployment of F-35As is due to visit an unspecified location in Europe during 2017 as part of the European Theatre Security Package. That said, the deployment to Red Flag 17-1 was seen as one of the key milestones, which would allow this deployment to go ahead.

The F-35 is very much still in development and has its critics who question the aircraft at every opportunity. However, if you talk to the pilots and maintainers and they cannot praise the aircraft highly enough which was evident during the exercise’s Media Event held on the February 2 when no less than three F-35A specialists were on hand to answer questions about the aircraft and its performance.

During the exercise, the F-35s notched up an impressive kill ratio of 15:1 against the Aggressors who came up against them. Additionally, the jets advanced suite of sensors were utilised in order to build up a detailed picture of the battle space which was used not only by the type but also the other key players in the blue force package.

When asked about the types of role that the F-35 was performing during the exercise, Lt Col George Watkins, the 34th FS commander, said that once the jets had built up a picture of the battle space, they would prosecute the targets by penetrating the weak points of their defences utilising the stealth attributes of the jet. They would then take out the advanced SAM (Surface-to-Air missile) threats, then allowing other key players to come in and perform their roles. Even when the F-35’s had expended their ordinance, they were requested to stay in the fight and assist by soaking up live battlefield data and passing it to older Fourth-generation fighters via the Link 16 datalink.

From a maintenance perspective, not a single mission was lost due to serviceability issues which is impressive for the debut of a new type in such a challenging environment. Typical missions comprised between six and eight aircraft per launch and on at least one occasion, ten aircraft participated on a single sortie. The mission capable rate was also impressive, touted at a staggering 90% when compared to around the 65-70% usually accepted for legacy fighters.

The anticipated 3F software update is slowly making its way towards the frontline aircraft which will allow the use of the internal cannon on the F-35A (the cannon is carried externally on the B and C models) as well as a greater range of munitions to be utilised. However, the current 3i software which, in post development had seen pilots have to re-boot the aircraft in flight due to glitches, performed flawlessly during the deployment. The 3F software package will also expand the manoeuvring and G loading parameters which are more restrictive with 3i, thus improving combat effectiveness and survivability.

Red Flag 17-1 was not all about the ‘new kid on the block’ however and the 159th FS, Florida Air National Guard  (ANG) brought ten F-15Cs to the exercise. In a notable first for the unit, they deployed to Red Flag with SNIPER targeting pods fitted to the centre line hard point of a number of the jets. The Air National Guard are pioneering the use of SNIPER on the F-15Cs that are operated by a number of its units which enhances the Eagle’s already impressive suite of sensors by adding an Electro-Optical and Infrared (EO/IR) sensor capable of locating targets at great distance. When slaved to the F-15’s AN/APG-63(v)3 radar, SNIPER allows the pilot a better chance of visually identifying a target as well as identification via the radar and IFF (Identification friend or foe) receivers. An additional ‘ace up the sleeve’ for the Eagle pilots is the ability to track stealthier targets by using the SNIPER’s IR capability to track hot exhaust emissions.

During the latter stages of the exercise, the deployed RAF Voyager Tanker was given clearance for the E/A-18G Growlers of VAQ-132 and VAQ-134 to utilise its ‘Probe and Drogue’ method of Air-to- Air Refuelling. Voyager has been providing this facility to Growlers, as well as other allied assets in the campaign against DAESH in the Middle East, however that clearance is not valid during peacetime operations and exercise scenarios unless dispensation is given to do so. In the case of Red Flag, permission was not granted until the third week of the exercise and the Growlers only used Voyager on a small number of occasions. Nevertheless, the training value given to both type’s crews added to the lessons learned and identified from the exercise which can be taken forward for future encounters.

In conclusion, Red Flag 17-1 enhanced the airmanship, comradery and warfighting skills of all units in attendance. For many of the units involved, the experience will be used as they forward deploy to whichever theatre of operations they are given orders to deploy to in the coming months and years.